A reader emails with a question:
When writing a novel, is it best to edit along the way, or just write the entire rough draft, then go back and edit? I can write a chapter and go back and edit and edit and edit. That seems to inhibit further progress on my story. What is your suggestion for editing?
I love to edit. Editing is when I turn my hot mess first draft into the sloppy mess second draft, then the semi-presentable third, and the final version in the party dress and heels. But I don’t edit a manuscript until I have finished that first hot mess of a draft.
Every writer attacks editing differently. Harlan Coben says he begins the morning by reviewing what he wrote the day before and cleaning it up before he launches into the new day’s writing. I used to edit every page as I wrote it. Over and over and over. I ended up with chapters that shone with the strength of a thousand suns… six chapters, about 50 pages, that were all I had after two years of writing. I broke this habit thanks to these words by Tony Hillerman (from the anthology Writing Mysteries: a Handbook by the Mystery Writers of America):
I no longer waste two months perfecting that first chapter before getting on with the book. No matter how carefully you have the project planned, first chapters tend to demand rewriting. Things happen. New ideas suggest themselves, new possibilities intrude. Slow to catch on, I collected a manila folder full of perfect, polished, exactly right, pear-shaped first chapters before I learned this lesson. Their only flaw is that they don’t fit the book I finally wrote. The only book they will ever fit will be one titled Perfect First Chapters, which would be hard to sell. Thus Hillerman’s First Law: Never polish the first chapter until the last chapter is written.
Do what works for you, but don’t let it slow you down.
My friend Ann Aubrey Hanson, freelance editor, says: “I am a proponent of writing it all and then editing, but I can’t keep myself from intermediate edits. That slows progress, but can sometimes help to identify a new course for the story. Overall, though, I say get the story on paper and then edit.”
I agree with Ann: Keep going. If minor edits help loosen up your writing muscles and get you into the story ready to jump into the day’s writing, then do that. But editing and re-editing can leave you spinning your wheels. Whatever you do, keep moving forward.
Photo: two pages from the rough draft of my novel Phantom Instinct, edited.